We are picking up today exactly where we left off last week in the gospel according to Luke. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s in Jericho – one last stop before he makes his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that Jesus had just had a conversation with Zacchaeus, where Jesus invited himself to dinner and Zacchaeus immediately turned his life around and made amends. The story we’re about to hear happens in that same moment – Zacchaeus has just finished talking about how he was going to pay back 4x as much as everything he had stolen and give half of everything he owned to the poor.
The crowds were seemingly astonished, and starting to get revved up in a different way – thinking that maybe Jesus really was the Messiah, and was on his way to Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans and restore the physical kingdom of Israel. This is Jesus’ reply.
Scripture: Luke 19:11-26
As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
This parable is not usually in the lectionary (the regularly scheduled readings that churches around the world use) because the folks who put that together tried to avoid the passages that might be too graphic or controversial – but I think it’s too fascinating and too important to skip.
‘Fascinating’ might not be your initial reaction to this story, but there are a few interesting things here that I want to make sure we all get to see.
First, the gospel of Luke doesn’t do a lot of explaining of parables. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke also doesn’t use the introductory phrase ‘the kingdom of God is like…’ to introduce certain parables. This can make it harder to figure out which ones were meant to be allegories, where there is a clear God-figure and a particular person the listeners are meant to identify with, and which ones are told just to make a particular point.
Certain early interpreters liked to make EVERYTHING into an allegory, which is why there are some…interesting…interpretations of biblical stories out there.
But I don’t think this is meant to be one of those stories – partly because the crowds would have heard something very different from what the disciples heard in this moment.
The crowds, having seen yet another miraculous moment, were probably starting to pump themselves up for an armed revolution – which almost definitely would not have ended with the Romans going home.
They had good reason to be afraid of their Roman rulers, who were not unlike the greedy, harsh, selfish king in this story, and Jesus probably would have expected these crowds to identify most with the servant who hid the money he was given under his mattress. A good part of their lives revolved around not making the Romans angry to keep themselves safe.
But in an unexpected plot twist, out of ten servants (only two of whom seem to have made any money), it’s the cautious one – the guy who hedges his bets – who gets yelled at and loses everything.
If the king in this story was supposed to be a God-character, that would not be good news. But I think this story was meant to remind the crowds of their current rulers, and that even if they did everything right, even if they did the bare minimum, they could still lose everything to the whims of a petty tyrant.
Jesus is not going into Jerusalem with an angry mob behind him, determined to seize the throne from Herod. He’s not riding a marvelous war-horse down main street.
Instead, he’ll send for a colt. Children will pull palm branches from trees. He’ll be humiliated and mocked and ultimately killed – until his revolution takes hold in the form of resurrection and new life, gifted freely and without cost.
Jesus is not the angry, temperamental king who rides in to yell at us – but is in fact the exact opposite, ruling not through fear of punishment but with compassion, humility, and love. His revolution is coming, just not in the way they imagine.
That said, the disciples might have seen themselves in this story in a very different way.
They had already tried to talk Jesus out of this trip, because they knew the angry religious leaders and the crowds like this one made it unlikely that he would come out unscathed. But he was insistent, so they followed.
One of the themes in Luke, that Jesus talks with his disciples about over and over again, is fruitfulness – of multiplying what you’re given in the same way that one kernel of corn can grow into a whole plant and a whole ear of corn. Jesus encourages his disciples to bear good fruit as they spread the good news of the kingdom of God, and so this talk of a servant multiplying the thing their boss had entrusted them with was pretty familiar.
But there, again, is that plot twist. Jesus doesn’t want them to take what they’ve been given and hide it under a mattress, even though they’re afraid. He’s reminding them to take a risk with it, and trust that God will provide the sun and rain and nutrients for the gospel to grow and multiply.
This is Jesus’ way of saying to his disciples: “what’s coming is going to be scary, y’all. But I am entrusting you with the sum total of everything I have said and done – and I’m trusting you not to go hide under your beds with it.”
Fear can be a powerful motivator. That’s why fire and brimstone was once so popular with churches – if you instill enough fear in someone and then say you have a way to quiet that fear, you can get folks to do a lot of things.
But this parable reminds us that ruling by terror produces rotten fruit – it will ultimately shut down any risk we might take for the sake of inclusion, for re-interpretation, for change.
What Jesus gives us to invest is the sum total of everything he’s said and done. Our faithful discipleship involves letting our own thoughts and behavior be shaped, not by snarky Facebook quotes or the depths of our frustrations, but by Jesus. We are to invest ourselves in the same things Jesus cared the most about until those things become second nature to us. We are to risk the comfort of what we already have for the sake of the ways Jesus might come alive among us again.
While this is not a ‘use it or lose it’ threat, this message is still about faithfulness, and using the gifts God has given us for good – but it’s about faithfulness to Jesus and his whole story, rather than a to-do list.
Many of the problems and questions we face today aren’t explicitly addressed by Jesus in Scripture: things like how much screen time is too much screen time, which apps are appropriate for kids at what age, how to combat modern racism and sexism, how best to care for people with disabilities, how to distribute government funds in a fair and just way among various helping programs. You can’t just look up ‘who should be allowed to apply for food stamps’ in the index of your Bible.
If you’re looking for faithful answers in today’s complex world, you have to ask bigger questions: would Jesus feed this person? How is this technology or activity helping to connect me to the people and things I love, and how is it encouraging the worst in me? Is it worth it? How did Jesus prioritize his time and energy? What did he tell his disciples over and over and over again?
And here’s another hard truth: faithfulness won’t look the same for everyone – and it won’t look the same for us in every season. The one who spends 25 hours here at church is not necessarily being more faithful than the one who spends 25 hours teaching their kids to tie their shoes or use their inside voice. The married couple is not necessarily more faithful than the single person, and vice versa.
When we start looking at Scripture more as the story of God and God’s people and less like a cosmic to-do list, we are suddenly freed to ask and answer these new questions with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
Friends, the Holy Spirit dwells with us, and within us – and as Paul wrote to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power, and love, and self-discipline.”
May that same Spirit empower you, with love and courage, to go get the inheritance you’ve hidden under your mattress and put it to good use, that you too might bear good fruit. Amen.